Monday, September 2, we will celebrate Labor Day (“LD”). As we all know, the holiday has traditionally been celebrated on the first Monday of September. It is celebrated in various forms and at various dates in approximately 80 countries.
To most Americans LD merely symbolizes the unofficial end of summer and the impending beginning of the school year. They enjoy the day off from work. They spend the day with family and/or friends. They enjoy picnics, parades, vacations, shopping, baseball games and other sports activities, and barbecues. They lament, but grudgingly accept, holiday traffic and long lines at airports. Also, it is the reason why summer always seems to be so short. In our minds, we transfer the approximately three post-Labor Day weeks of the season to Autumn. But, what is the meaning and purpose of LD? Why do we celebrate it? How did it come about? Good questions. Read on for the answers.
As the name implies, the purpose of LD is to celebrate the accomplishments of the American Labor movement. Whatever one’s political views and affiliations, I think it is important and appropriate to understand Labor’s contributions to the growth and development of the US. For one thing, cheap labor was an integral component of the Industrial Revolution. When all was said and done, someone had to build all the roads, railroads, and cars, and operate all the factories and steel mills. In addition, the labor activism of the late 1800s and early 1900s was largely responsible for the relatively high wages and extensive benefits that are enjoyed by today’s US labor force (compared to other countries).
It should be noted that union membership has been declining sharply and steadily. For example in 1950 approximately 40% of American workers were members of a union. By contrast, in 2018 the number was 11%
The history of LD began in the 1870s in Canada. Labor Unions were illegal in Canada, and 26 members of the Toronto Typographical Union had been imprisoned for striking for a nine-hour work day. That action led to demonstrations and rallies and raising the profile of labor unrest in both Canada and the US. Two of the most outspoken leaders were Peter McGuire, founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and an official of the AF of L, and Matthew Maguire, Secretary of the Central Labor Union in NY.
Historical accounts differ, but one or both of these men are credited with being the first to propose a holiday to celebrate labor. In any event, the CLU planned and organized the first LD celebration in NYC on September 5, 1885. Approximately, 20,000 workers and their families participated. The concept spread. In 1887 Oregon became the first state to sanction the holiday.
The Pullman Labor Strike in 1893 provided the final impetus for a national labor holiday. The Pullman Company had been founded and was run by George Pullman. Pullman, IL, where the company operated, was a classic company town. All the workers lived there and paid rent to the company, which was automatically deducted from their paychecks. Workers’ housing was segregated according to their jobs; everyone shopped at the Company Store.
Many viewed such an arrangement as a form of slavery, because workers were, in actuality, trapped due to their omnipresent debt to the Company. (Think of the song “Sixteen Tons.”) In 1893 the country was in the midst of a recession. The company laid off hundreds of workers and reduced the wages of the others. Of course, living expenses remained constant. These actions led to a strike. President Cleveland declared the strike to be illegal and “broke” it with Federal troops. Some striking workers were killed in the ensuing violence.
This incensed many Americans, and 1894 was an election year. So, Congress expeditiously passed a bill establishing LD as a national holiday, and the President promptly signed it into law. This entire process took only six days, so you can imagine the extent of the public outcry. Incidentally, this action failed to save President Cleveland’s political career; he was defeated anyway.
Eventually, the government settled on the first Monday in September as the official date. Many countries celebrate it on May 1 in conjunction with International Workers’ Day, but the Federal government did not want the association with that date for obvious reasons.
As usual, holiday travelers can expect considerable delays, frustration and inconveniences. For example, the AAA predicts that 85% of the people who travel on the weekend will do so by car. We all know what that means. Spokesperson Mary Maguire stated that although, as always, most people will depart on Friday and return on Monday a “significant number of people” are expected to “stagger their departure and/or return time(s).” In addition, some locales have “wised up” and plan to suspend construction projects over the weekend.
Planning to fly? Good luck. As usual airports will be overwhelmed. For example, LAX has announced it expects 1.38 million travelers. So, expect the usual flight delays and long lines at security. Best to allow a lot of extra time to make your flight.
Furthermore, all of the following could be exacerbated by the weather. For instance, Hurricane Dorian will likely affect travel on the East Coast, and the spillover might affect the rest of the country as well.
Quiz question: According to a poll by National Today, what will be the most common ways to celebrate LD? Answer below.
One of the supreme ironies of LD is that because it is such a big shopping day, many workers, especially retailers, are required to work. LD is considered to be one of the biggest retail sales days of the year. Some people use the day as a benchmark to change over their summer clothes to fall clothes. Fashion-minded people claim it the latest day when one should wear white clothes (although “winter white,” whatever that is, is still permissible.)
Like other holidays, LD should be a time for all of us to come together and reflect on what makes America, despite its flaws, the greatest country in the world. People in other countries may like to criticize us for our real and perceived flaws, but yet they still want to come here, in some cases, desperately. In essence, many of them are “voting with their feet.”
Despite what you may see on tv or read in newspapers or on social media, most Americans are decent, hard-working, caring persons. Whenever disaster or tragedy strikes we unite to help those in distress. Many have donated their time and/or money without being asked and without expecting any payback or even recognition. If you doubt me, just look at the outpouring of kindness and empathy shown by “average” Americans toward the victims of the catastrophic events in recent years, such as superstorm Sandy and hurricanes Katrina, Irma and Harvey.
To me, those people, not the destructive thugs and professional agitators one sees on the tv news destroying property, attacking the police, and beating up those with whom they disagree, are the “real” Americans. It is the proverbial “silver lining” in a very dark cloud.
I hope you all enjoy your Labor Day holiday, however you choose to spend it. Feel free to tell me what you did.
Quiz answer: barbeque – 67%; movie – 36%. The most common foods consumed? Hamburgers (70%) and hot dogs (51%). No surprises there.